(The Senate Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality meets today at 2 p.m. in Room 1027/1128 of the Legislative Building.)
The neighborhood immediately north of the Chemours plant, which straddles the Cumberland-Bladen county line, is a mix of mobile homes, concrete-block houses painted white or gray, and upscale brick manses, some still under construction.
But what all of these households have in common is a small wellhouse in the yard. Too far from Fayetteville to connect to that city’s utility, the homes are on private drinking water wells. And here on the brim of the Chemours plant, 19 wells — their exact locations kept confidential for privacy reasons — are tainted with GenX, an unregulated contaminant produced by the facility’s vinyl ether manufacturing line.
From southern Cumberland County and areas downstream, including Brunswick County and Wilmington, GenX has been detected in the Cape Fear River and in private and public drinking water supplies. And for the last four months, lawmakers and state environmental and health officials have been trying to calm the public while attempting to get a handle on a contaminant that they know little about, and can neither taste, smell, nor see.We’ve been operating on fear and sheer ignorance Click To Tweet
Last Thursday, at the first meeting of the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality, Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican provided overdue guidance to his colleagues: “We’ve been operating on fear and sheer ignorance. We need true information.”
Iler’s candor notwithstanding, lawmakers have spent the summer accusing state environmental and health officials of carelessness — and the media of recklessness — in their handling of the GenX crisis.
The legislature rebuffed Gov. Cooper’s request for $2.6 million to help those agencies address drinking water contaminants statewide. Then, signaling their discontent, lawamkers passed legislation that at the last-minute, appropriated $435,000 to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and UNC Wilmington to study the contaminant.
(Read a related post from the Port City Daily about how the utility’s PR firm tweaked a press release to insinuate the governor had a lackadaisical attitude toward the crisis.)
Gov. Cooper vetoed that measure, House Bill 56, but it’s expected to come up for an override vote on Wednesday.
For six hours, the committee heard from state environmental and health officials, Duke University scientists, UNC Wilmington’s legislative liaison and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. There were several points of near-consensus:
- It will require a lot of money — tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars — for sampling, monitoring and cleanup.
- Federal and state regulations are too weak to rein in companies like Chemours, which have found legal loopholes allowing them to pollute. They also can keep much of the information about GenX secret, under federal rules governing Confidential Business Information.
- State government and universities should work cooperatively, using their technical abilities and expertise, to attack the problem.
The problem of emerging contaminants — unregulated, secret and hard to detect with standard laboratory equipment — is plaguing environmental regulators nationwide.
“This is like industrial whack-a-mole,” Tracy Skrabal, coastal scientist and manager of the Southeast Regional Office of the NC Coastal Federation, told the select committee. “If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have a national problem.”